Built to Deliver

When it came to Door-to-door milk trucks, metro Detroit’s DIVCO was the cream of the crop

There was a time not so long ago when “Got Milk?” would have been a silly question, because everybody did have milk. And it came courtesy of the endearing snub-nosed delivery trucks produced by DIVCO (Detroit Industrial Vehicle Co.).

At a time when almost all homes had milk chutes, home delivery of milk, cream, butter, eggs, and cottage cheese in midcentury America made the milkman as common a household visitor as the mailman and the Avon lady.

Sealtest, Wilson’s, Twin Pines, and Borden’s were just some of the companies that used DIVCOs in the Detroit area, but the vehicles were put to work all over the country. And although dairies were the principal users of the trucks, bakeries (such as Awrey’s locally), laundries, and other business that relied on home delivery employed the rugged and reliable DIVCOs like so many draft horses.

DIVCO started in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late 1930s when the familiar snub-nosed model appeared. They were built at DIVCO’s plant on Hoover Road, between Eight and Nine Mile roads in Warren, which is still standing. The design remained basically unchanged for decades, but the sight of one today invites a nostalgic frisson with many who are immediately transported back to their childhood.

The pull of the past prompted Tony Selvaggio, president and COO of Troy’s Pointe Dairy Services Inc., to purchase and restore a 1965 DIVCO about a decade ago. His company distributes dairy and other food products made by Tropicana, Dannon, Borden’s, Calder Dairy, Sanders, and other companies to restaurants, schools, hospitals, and other institutions.

Selvaggio’s father, Joseph, began the company in 1968 distributing Sealtest, then Borden’s dairy products, so you could say that milk runs in the family.

Selvaggio’s revamped DIVCO isn’t in his delivery fleet, but he does use it as a promo vehicle — and it turns heads. “We use it as our company mascot; it’s even been at Autorama,” he says. “Everyone loves it when we take it out. A lot of people give you a thumbs-up when they see it.

“People say it brings back good memories of when milk was delivered to their homes in the ’50s or ’60s,” the Grosse Pointe Farms resident says.

The DIVCO he salvaged was found neglected for about 20 years in the most unlikely of places — the Arizona desert. “A friend found it sitting up to its axles in sand,” he says. “He had to chisel the sand off the axles and the chassis, but it actually kind of preserved the chassis. He totally restored it for me.”

John S. Rienzo Jr., co-author of DIVCO: A History of the Truck and Company and librarian of the DIVCO Club of America, is the owner of six DIVCOS, ranging from a 1930 Model G to a rare 1963 Alumivan.

“I’m pretty sure mine is the only one that exists,” he says of the latter. “There were only 28 made.”

Rienzo says the club, founded in 1991, has close to 500 members in the United States and Canada, as well as a few overseas. Many members own DIVCOs, which they use for various purposes.

“Some of them have been street-rodded or hot-rodded, but many owners use them as promo vehicles,” he says, “although I know of at least one dairy in Providence, Rhode Island, that still uses its DIVCO for milk deliveries every morning.”

Like Selvaggio, New Yorker Rienzo has a family connection to the dairy business — his grandfather was a milkman for a Queens-based creamery.

Rienzo says DIVCOs were tough and rarely broke down because they were specifically designed to endure the strain of frequent stops. “Ford, Chevy, and Dodge also built production trucks, but they weren’t designed for constant stop-and-start delivery,” he explains. “Whereas the DIVCO, which cost more, lasted longer because it was purpose-built. It had much heavier-duty axles, alternators, starters, and brakes because that was what it was designed for.”

The predecessor to DIVCOs was electrically powered, but that didn’t last long, Rienzo says, because the batteries were heavy and reduced the load that could be carried. A LeRoi gasoline engine replaced it briefly in 1926 (the year DIVCO was born), then Continental Motors Co. supplied the engine for years. That sprawling Continental plant, which also provided engines for Hudson and Checker, was at East Jefferson Avenue between Gray and Algonquin streets. In fact, Continental briefly owned DIVCO in the 1930s before it merged with Twin Coach.

DIVCO has a checkered history of ownership (see a thorough history at divco.org), and when Ohio-based Correct Manufacturing took possession in the early ’70s, a bumpy road lay ahead. In 1986, DIVCO made its last stop.

“There wasn’t much demand for them anymore, and they were being built with cheaper materials,” Rienzo says.

But there was another reason for DIVCO’s demise: American society had irretrievably changed. Home delivery became outdated, even quaint. Today, just a handful of dairies provide residential delivery.

“Grocery stores stayed open later, and you could buy milk there,” Rienzo explains. “Families got a second car, and women went to work; they weren’t at home for the milk delivery.”

And so, to paraphrase the title of a Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Truck Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.

But for those who can still recall milk home delivery, the memories of DIVCO will never sour.

The biennial DIVCO Club of America convention will be held in York, Pa., May 27-30, 2015. divco.org